The eastern shore of Virginia was on our radar for two reasons, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (to see the iconic ponies that graze the marsh) and to visit the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art. Yep, we are back to being our nature-loving selves with those two stops. With only two days to drive and sight-see, we were going to be busy.
Oh, and the other BIG reason was to avoid all of the big city traffic we were sure to hit on route from Virginia Beach to Baltimore on I-95. That being said, the pleasant drive across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel and up the eastern shore of Virginia was a perfect route.
The most iconic animal roaming the 14,000-acre Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is not what you would typically expect to find on this federal conservation land set aside to protect migratory birds and known for providing outdoor recreation opportunities. Instead, Chincoteague NWR is notorious for theirponies. Yes, I said “ponies” – those long-manned equines that look totally out of place grazing under the pines and in the marsh of a Virginia barrier island. Lore has it that the ponies escaped from a shipwrecked Spanish galleon and swam ashore. Others believe early settlers brought them with other livestock and they were allowed to roam free. Regardless of their origin, these iconic ponies adorn storefronts, t-shirts, signs, and were the catalyst that drew us to the area.
We started our visit at the refuge visitor center which has great interactive and educational exhibits and four short movies for your viewing pleasure. While pony viewing is certainly the most popular activity, other activities are climbing the 142-foot Assateague Lighthouse for a spectacular view of the barrier islands, hiking to one of many waterfowl-laden ponds, enjoying a bike ride on the wildlife loop trail, participating in a ranger-led educational program, trying to land dinner while surf fishing, enjoying off-road beach driving or just lounging on the beach.
After the refuge, we picked up Spirit (as dogs are not allowed in the refuge) and went downtown to check out the tiny vacation town. As we expected, pony souvenirs were everywhere and the downtown pays homage to “Misty of Chincoteague” with a bronze statue.
Once I saw an advertisement for the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, I knew we had to go. As someone who grew up duck hunting in southern Missouri and spent three years in graduate school researching mottled ducks in Louisiana, I have a thing for waterfowl. This museum has one of the most incredible collections of wildfowl carvings anywhere in the world. They run the gamut from antique decoys that were durable and useful to the decorative and detailed carvings that fetch tens of thousands of dollars. The decoys and carvings are artistically displayed and the decoys seem to come alive before you.
The museum is named for Steve and Lem Ward two brothers from the area that were carving pioneers. These visionaries took the skill of carving functional decoys and transformed it into an art that lives on today. What we thought was going to be a quick visit to the museum turned into over a two-hour stay.
The museum was much larger than we thought and exceptionally well done. We are certainly glad we decided to stop. It's a must for anyone who likes waterfowl.